Bong Joon-ho isn’t eating too much meat these days.
The South Korean writer-director known for genre-bending thrillers like “The Host,” “Memories of Murder” and “Snowpiercer” is grabbing a quick dinner. The smell of beef sizzling on tabletop grills is inescapable, but Bong is sticking to cold naengmyun noodles and kimchi dumplings (“Not beef!” he notes, hoisting one aloft with his chopsticks) as part of a reduction in meat consumption that he attributes to his new film.
“Okja,” which Netflix began streaming Wednesday, follows a 13-year-old Korean girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), in her quest to save a genetically modified “super pig” named Okja from being chewed up by the forces of 21st-century global capitalism. The implied horror of “Okja’s” slaughterhouse climax could put viewers off bacon for life, though Bong notes that converting viewers to veganism was not the main objective.
“The film does address the environment and animal rights, but it’s more about capitalism and the system that we live in because of it,” he says. “The animals are experiencing a holocaust, basically, but to the companies, it’s just mass production.”
The company in this case is the fictional Mirando Corp., run by twin sisters Lucy and Nancy Mirando (both played by Tilda Swinton) and fronted by a Steve Irwin-style TV personality (Jake Gyllenhaal). Okja is one of 26 genetically enhanced piglets that Mirando sends out to be raised on farms around the world, then recalls to its New York headquarters years later for inspection, breeding and eventual execution — but not if Mija, Okja’s caretaker and best friend, has anything to say about it.
Shot in New York, Vancouver, Canada and Seoul, and featuring a bilingual cast that includes Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Giancarlo Esposito and Byun Hee-bong, “Okja” represents Bong’s latest and nerviest venture into the realm of big-budget, predominantly English-language filmmaking. (About 20 percent of the film’s dialogue is Korean.)
“Back in 2003, it was hard to imagine a Korean director making English-language films with Hollywood stars,” says Kim Moo-ryoung, a producer on “Memories of Murder.” But she adds that the strong international response to the film, particularly its Korea-specific political elements, expanded Bong’s sense of cinema’s potential.
It’s a progression that began with his 2014 graphic-novel adaptation, “Snowpiercer,” a post-apocalyptic thriller set aboard a train carrying the last remnant of humanity. The film starred Chris Evans along with Swinton, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov and Song Kang-ho, the top Korean star who also anchored “The Host” and “Murder.”
If “Snowpiercer” and “Okja” feel like products of an increasingly global film industry, Bong maintains that his casting and location decisions of late remain as story-driven as they were in his Korean productions.
“I am just led by where the story goes,” he says. “In the case of ‘Snowpiercer,’ it’s every language, but (it all takes place on) one train, one linear world, so it allowed me to make a multinational movie quite naturally. ‘Okja’ is totally different in that there are two worlds that don’t collide. I wanted a feeling of bewilderment: How can a person from one universe come into contact with a person from another?”
For Swinton, an admirer of Bong’s films, starring in “Snowpiercer” and “Okja” allowed her to witness the director’s trademark precision on a more ambitious canvas.
“He is completely dedicated to a moment-by-moment exploration of how peculiar and specific existence is,” she says. “One doesn’t have to work within a $5-million budget or less to be that precise, that individual, that complicated. It’s thrilling to see him take that specificity and put it into a film of this size.”
Dooho Choi, a producer on “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” notes the near-Kubrickian intensity of the director’s approach to storyboarding and shot construction. Far from making the work feel stilted or detached, Bong remains alive to the in-the-moment possibilities of the actors in those meticulously constructed frames.
“It’s almost like setting up dominoes, and then the fun part is watching them all fall,” Choi says. “I think the best moments for him are when the actors do something completely crazy, beyond what he could have come up with.”
“It’s not a controlled environment but a prescribed environment,” Swinton agrees. “And within those parameters you are not only free, but you are invited to amuse him.”
Some might say that Bong has gone Hollywood, a misleading charge given how few U.S. studio filmmakers bring as distinctive an auteur signature to their work. Fewer still routinely attempt such a heady fusion of action and ideas, character-driven emotion and state-of-the-art visual effects.
The director is quick to praise Netflix for giving him the freedom to make the $50-million film without compromise. The company’s sole criterion was that “Okja” be shot digitally rather than on film.
Bong’s seventh feature, with the working title of “Parasite,” will be a return to basics: an all-Korean production starring Song and featuring a dysfunctional family of four. If history is any indication, the film will tap into what Swinton describes as the thematic concern that runs through all Bong’s films.
“It’s this existential question of feeling like a freak,” she says. “There are very few of us who have never felt like that, and that is the deal. That’s the existential deal.”
For “Okja” producer Dede Gardner, Bong’s ability to transcend cultural boundaries speaks to a vision as compassionate as it is ferocious.
“I think of Bong as a true humanist,” she says. “And when that happens, borders evaporate.”
“Okja” is available for streaming from Netflix.